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The stretch that will make or break the Columbus Blue Jackets’ shortened season

With an important 19 game stretch to the trade deadline, the Columbus Blue Jackets are at a crossroads – where they go over the next four weeks could determine not just the playoff race, but what faces remain in town for the stretch run.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After a win over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday and a victory over the Dallas Stars last night, the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves teetering on the edge of the playoff bubble. The team has just 19 games until the trade deadline, at which point GM Jarmo Kekalainen must weigh what to do with the roster – should he add players, stand pat, or potentially trade pending unrestricted free agents like David Savard?

With 45% of the season now in the books, the sun is setting on this season and the hopes of the Blue Jackets to find consistent footing and play. Two wins in a row have fans feeling somewhat hopeful for the rest of the year. How they perform over this next stretch is critical to establishing plans for the rest of the year and the offseason.

Let’s dive into the next four weeks and see what the team is facing.

03/06/2021 – at Dallas Stars

The Blue Jackets first, and up next, have to finish their road trip to Dallas. Dallas, as has been noted, has struggled this year, going just 1-6-3 in their ten previous games before last night. The Stars have had numerous games moved or postponed, due to COVID protocols and weather, and have struggled to look like the team from the bubble that finished at Stanley Cup runners up.

03/09/2021 and 03/11/2021 – home vs Florida Panthers

The Blue Jackets return home for the first two of four games of a homestand, hosting the Florida Panthers. The Panthers have surprised this season, largely on the back of surprise goaltender Chris Driedger who, as of this writing, is 7-2-2 this season with a .926 save percentage and 2.25 goals against average and has significantly outperformed the struggling Sergei Bobrovsky. On offense, the Panthers are led by the duo of Jonathan Huberdeau (8-16-24) and Aleksander Barkov (8-14-22).

The Panthers are 13-4-4, sport a team save percentage of .929 at 5v5, and a CF% of 53.7%. The Panthers are a surprise, but their underlying numbers are strong and they’re playing improved defense in year two under Joel Quenneville. They look every bit a lock for the playoffs at this stage of the season.

03/13/2021 and 03/14/2021 – home vs Dallas Stars

The Stars visit Columbus for a two game road trip of their own. While the teams will have just played, Dallas could see some reinforcements with returns from injury – currently Ben Bishop (knee), Stephen Johns (concussion), Alexander Radulov (lower body), and Tyler Seguin (hip) are out of the lineup.

03/18/2021 and 03/20/2021 – at Carolina Hurricanes, 03/22/2021 and 03/25/2021 – home vs Carolina Hurricanes

The only four game stretch against one opponent this season, and it comes against one of the best teams in the division. As of this writing, the Hurricanes are 15-6-1, good for 31 points and first place in the Central Division. Rod Brind’Amour’s squad is scoring goals (76, third in the league), lethal on the power play (29.58%), and are sporting a .705 points percentage on the year. The Hurricanes are a strong team, with depth and surprising strong goaltending.

The Hurricanes are scoring by committee, with nine players sporting 10 points or more led by Sebastian Aho’s 20 (8-12-20). James Reimer has the bulk of the starts in net, going 10-3-0 with a .902 save percentage and a 2.90 goals against average. The Canes are 6-1-1 at home currently, 9-5-0 on the road, and are part of the clear cut upper echelon of the division. These games will be critical for Columbus.

03/27/2021 and 03/28/2021 – at Detroit Red Wings

A reprieve. Detroit, expectedly, is the worst team in the division. They made some personnel upgrades over the offseason, but those have not been enough to compete for the playoff bubble. On any given night, however, a bad team can beat a good one. We’ve seen Detroit beat Columbus once already this year. For Columbus to truly claw back into playoff contention, they must take four points from Detroit in this two game road trip – a split is a death knell for the season, given the rest of the opponents in this stretch of games.

03/30/2021 and 04/01/2021 – at Tampa Bay Lightning

Visiting the defending Stanley Cup champions is rarely an easy task, and it certainly isn’t here. Tampa Bay, right now, has 31 points (tied with Carolina on top of the division), sports a .775 points percentage, and is 9-1-0 at home on the season. Expecting Columbus to go into Amalie Arena and sweep the series with Tampa Bay is unlikely, but any points would be a boon to their playoff hopes.

Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman lead the Lightning in scoring with 20 points apiece on the season, and the team is getting great goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy – he has a .942 save percentage abd a 1.65 goals against average for the year. They are also doing this without Nikita Kucherov in the lineup – he’s out with an injury until the playoffs. It’s good to be the champs.

04/03/2021 and 04/04/2021 – at Florida Panthers

The Jackets follow their two game set with the Tampa Bay Lightning by crossing Florida and taking on the Panthers in Miami. Florida, again a team with a 90% chance for the playoffs at the time of writing, is no pushover. Columbus has ceded chances and shots to teams with quality forward groups, and Florida certainly falls into that category. Sprinkled in between two sets against the Lightning, these games are critical point opportunities that Columbus must find a way to take advantage of.

04/06/2021 and 04/08/2021 – home vs Tampa Bay Lightning

Coming home from a four game stretch against the Florida teams to face ... a Florida team. Tampa Bay has, as noted, been outstanding this season, steamrolling opponents regardless of quality. Columbus is 1-1 against Tampa thus far this season at home, handing the Lightning one of their four regulation losses on the season. If there is a chance for the Blue Jackets to get points off of the champions, its here in Nationwide Arena at the beginning of a home stand.

04/10/2021 – home vs Chicago Blackhawks

The final game before the trade deadline. The Blue Jackets will be facing off with one of the two teams competing with them for the fourth playoff spot (the other being the Dallas Stars). This game could feature holdouts (for pending trades, on both sides), features a player who is in the Calder conversation (goaltender Kevin Lankinen), and could be the last appearance in a Blue Jackets sweater from David Savard (if he is traded before the deadline).

Columbus needs to take two points from this game to gain points on a challenger. The Jackets are 2-4 against one of their of their primary playoff rivals and need to find a way to get wings against a direct competitor and climb back into the playoff race.

This 19 game streak can mean a little to a great deal for the future of the franchise. If Columbus craters, the front office will face significant pressure to sell and make changes and play the kids down the stretch to see what they have. If they over-perform, perhaps the team hangs on to the UFAs to make a late push.

Either way, this stretch will define what happens with the organization for the rest of the year and how the team should proceed. With the difficult stretch of opponents, Columbus must sort out their issues, and quickly - the sun is getting real low.